J.D. Salinger: Great Writer, Lousy Father
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Sometimes being a great American writer means being a not-so-great parent.
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“People are always ruining things for you,” the iconic teenager Holden Caulfield famously laments in the classic American novel The Catcher in the Rye. And it was a sentiment that the book’s author, J.D. Salinger, no doubt shared. Salinger was not only a legendary recluse who shut himself off from the world in the woods of rural New Hampshire in his mid-30s, but the famous writer, who died in 2010, also took some rather remarkable precautions to insulate himself, and his work, from those who were closest to him, including his own kids.
A few years after Catcher was published in 1951, and after he had retreated to the woods of New Hampshire, Salinger married a British college student named Claire Douglas. She was 21; he was 36. At his insistence, she dropped out of school, and soon she became pregnant and gave birth to their first child, Margaret, in December 1955. At first, Salinger — whose creative world often centered upon child characters — doted on his infant daughter, whom the couple called Peggy.
Some nights he did not return at all.
But soon the reality of parenting, from changing diapers to sleepless nights, began to hit the obsessive writer. Salinger began to shirk his paternal duties and withdraw from his new wife. “Their marriage was strained from the beginning,” says Kenneth Slawenski, author of J.D. Salinger: A Life, and Salinger’s desire for solitude for his work soon became overwhelming. And so, trapped in a crowded cottage with his wife and crying baby, Salinger made a fateful decision that, writes Slawenski, “was professionally advantageous but personally disastrous.” About 100 yards from the couple’s cottage, the writer constructed a small room out of green concrete cinder blocks in which he could write undisturbed. Salinger furnished his “bunker” with a wood-burning stove, a bed, a filing cabinet and a table with a typewriter.
Salinger soon settled into a new writing routine, waking at dawn and retreating to his sanctuary, where he would remain undisturbed for 12 or more hours before returning for dinner. Some nights he did not return at all. He filled the walls of his bunker with hundreds of annotated note cards like some sort of secluded conspiracy theorist. And sure enough, cloistered away in his bunker, Salinger’s work, including his novella Zooey, came to life, but at a great cost. Isolated from the world, and caring for an infant by herself, Claire grew depressed. “Claire felt not only abandoned by her husband, but she was also in the middle of the woods,” says Slawenski, noting how she felt like a virtual prisoner in her own home.
A year later, in January 1957, the Salingers went to visit some friends in Manhattan, and Claire, who could no longer stand the thought of returning to her New Hampshire prison, did something to get her husband’s attention. When Salinger was out one day, she and Peggy left, leaving Salinger to return to New Hampshire alone. A few months later — after he had completed Zooey — Salinger tried to patch things up with Claire, who issued a series of nonnegotiable demands: Salinger would have to spend more time with his daughter, allow more visitors to the cottage, make some much-needed renovations to the building, including adding a nursery, and more.
Salinger agreed to her terms and soon became more involved in Peggy’s life. He went for daily walks with her and often took her with him on trips to Manhattan, including when she was 8 and they made a special detour to the carousel in Central Park — the one where Holden Caulfield watches his sister in the climax of Catcher.
“I remember how happy my father looked,” Margaret Salinger remembers in her 2000 memoir, Dream Catcher, “how he stood there grinning from one big ear to the other, waving to me each time I came around on my horse.”
And so, when push came to shove, Salinger did improve his parenting skills, but his work would remain his primary focus. He and Claire would divorce after 11 years of marriage, and after having another child, Matthew. Peggy would be sent off to boarding school, and the reclusive author would continue writing in the New Hampshire woods for another four decades. Peggy would grow further estranged from her father in adulthood, particularly after her memoir shared so much about the very private man’s world.
But, over time, as she admits in her memoir, she gained some perspective on her famous father. “I am able to see a talented man who, like the rest of us, is neither all good nor all bad,” she writes, comparing her father to the wizard in the film The Wizard of Oz, who observes of himself that he is not a bad man, “just a very bad wizard.”